Building and Sustaining Community
By Richard Peddicord, O.P.
Every religious order is marked by a unique charism, a defining grace, a particular mission. At the same time, in light of that charism, each founder of a religious order discovers a distinctive way to be his or her community’s leader. In this post, I will explore the way that St. Dominic led the Order of Preachers as its founder, and will offer a reflection on the uniqueness of Dominican leadership. In this, offering one’s gifts for the common good, respect for subsidiarity, and collaboration will take center stage. Ultimately, the goal of Dominican leadership will be revealed as the building and sustaining of community.
Traveling through the South of France in the early 1200s, Dominic encountered people deeply affected by the Albigensian heresy. His intuition told him that the best way to help the Church counter this divisive and harmful movement was to engage a community dedicated to preaching the truth of the gospel. This community would be an “Order of Preachers” and its members would live by the pillars of prayer, study, community, and preaching. The friars would “practice what they preach” and give to others the fruit of their contemplation. Dominic believed that the witness of his community’s life and the grace-filled reality of its preaching would win people to the truth.
Dominic had long recognized that he had been given the gratia praedicationis—the grace of preaching. He put this gift of his at the service of the common good and took on the project of establishing a religious order. In this, he left behind his native Castile and his former way of life as a canon regular attached to the Cathedral of Osma.
Dominic’s first challenge was to articulate his vision and to persuade others to join with him in the task of preaching the gospel. Of course, the radical freedom of those he addressed had to be respected; there could be no coercion, no trickery. Fr. Simon Tugwell, a member of the English Dominican Province, in his poem “Homage to a Saint,” writes this about St. Dominic’s style as leader:
He founded an Order, men say.
Say rather: friended.
He was their friend, and so
At last, in spite of themselves, they came.
He gave them an Order to found.
Writing several decades before the appearance of Facebook, Fr. Tugwell says that Dominic “friended” the Order rather than “founded” the Order. Dominic built relationships of trust and intimacy. He was a man who was inclusive, who welcomed others with open arms. He shared his vision in a way that helped others see that their gifts and talents would be respected and honored and put to use in a positive way in the Order.
The Order received papal approval in 1216 from Pope Honorius III and knew exponential growth. A man before his time, Dominic devised a system of government that was democratic and representative. He was indeed “Master,” but leadership was shared with provincials and priors; and all were subject to the rulings of a General Chapter. Dominic valued subsidiarity; he recognized that a higher authority should never arrogate to itself decisions that are rightly the purview of a lower authority. Dominic called his friars to be accountable and he asked them to carry out their tasks responsibly. He worked to assure that this would take place by insisting that leadership positions be elective offices.
The story is told that after his first term as Master, Dominic asked not to be re-elected. He dreamt of preaching the gospel among the Cumans and establishing the Order in Asia. His friars, however, would not acquiesce: he was re-elected handily. Dominic’s openness to relinquish his position highlights that leadership roles ought not be “life sentences.” It is a very Dominican ideal that one “goes back into the ranks” after a time of leading. In other words, there is no one who is always and everywhere a leader.
In some conceptions of leadership, one finds the leader alone, at the top of a pyramid. This is the antithesis of a Dominican approach to leadership. Dominic’s vision was one of collaboration, where all the members of the community had a role to play. Moreover, in community meetings, everyone was welcome to voice their opinions. The isolated, remote leader is unthinkable in a Dominican ecosystem. Dominic, who always carried with him the Gospel of Matthew and the Letters of St. Paul, obviously took the Apostle’s “analogy of the body” to heart: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12: 12-13).
With St. Dominic as their guide, Dominicans understand that leadership has a telos, a goal. The goal is not the aggrandizement or the personal enrichment of the leader; the goal is building community and sustaining community. In all of this, Dominican leadership is hopeful because it is rooted in the faith that God blesses all efforts that aid the common good. Dominican leadership is courageous because its foundation is trust that God’s grace is abundant and will suffice. Dominican leadership is collaborative since no one person can have all the answers, all the skills or all the know-how to face the challenges of any given time or place.
St. Dominic, the Dominican leader par excellence, articulated a vision and persuaded men and women to follow him. He, in turn, trusted their insights and perspectives as he faithfully led the fledgling community. He offered his gifts for the up-building of the preaching mission. For 800 years now his brothers and sisters have been following his example of building and sustaining community for the sake of mission.
About the Author
Father Richard Peddicord, O.P. has been the President of Fenwick High School since July of 2012.